|The Cruise3Sixty conference gave agents in attendance an opportunity to express their thoughts on the cruise industry.|
Thousands of professional travel agents attending Cruise Lines International Association’s (CLIA) Cruise3Sixty conference in Port Everglades, FL, revealed the state of the travel industry from their own perspectives on Friday, April 15, by using the latest technology to vote table by table.
When asked during the conference's first general session: “What is your current cruise and travel seller happiness index?” 15 percent said “ecstatic;” 40 percent said “happy;” 40 percent said “content, could use new business but not complaining;” 5 percent said “uncertain;" and none said they were “depressed.“
From the stage, a panel of cruise line executives, led by veteran cruise industry executive Rod McLeod, discussed the survey findings. On this specific vote, Rick Sasso, president of MSC Cruises USA, said he was disappointed that 40 percent of the agents said they were content.
“I suggest all of you never be content, there is so much opportunity,” Sasso said.
Then, agents were asked: “At the beginning of the second quarter, how are your sales tracking?” Nine percent said “significantly higher;” 63 percent said “much higher year over year;” 19 percent said “about the same as last year;” 7 percent said “somewhat lower year over year;” and 2 percent said “much lower.”
McLeod noted that, if so much revenue is not coming from sourcing outside North America, one wonders if the North American travel agent is losing ground? The executives all said no.
Dan Hanrahan, president and CEO, Celebrity Cruises, noted that while his line is putting a Celebrity Solstice-class ship in Australia, for example, those types of itineraries are good markets for North American travelers, particularly for those who have done the Caribbean so many times.
“I think globalization is really good for everybody," Hanrahan said.
Sasso said that the biggest growth is actually coming from North Americans going on European cruises. Speaking as a small ship operator, Charles Robertson, chairman and CEO, American Cruise Lines, said his line’s North American business was up 30 percent from 2009. He said that the North American cruiser is finding more options including specialty cruise lines.
When asked what the biggest challenge is this year, many agents cited direct cruise line bookings. During the voting process, 8 percent said the time it takes to market and network, 4 percent said competition from other agencies, 38 percent said online competition, 42 percent said direct cruise line bookings and 7 percent said battling old perceptions, such as cruises being boring or clients getting seasick easily.
Kevin Sheehan, president of Norwegian Cruise Line, addressed the complaints that his line has taken on the direct booking side, noting that the line had lagged behind others in the past when it came to direct bookings but, by simply fixing the technology (adding a consumer booking engine to its site), the line’s numbers had grown.
Sheehan said that, with the new Partners First program from Norwegian, the line was taking a step back and the company is looking hard at the cost of outbound calls, compensation to employees, phone costs and the pain caused to travel partners.
As a result, recently “we’ve recalibrated,” he said, noting that Norwegian was pouring $25 million into the travel agency side for marketing and technology enhancements.
Hanrahan stressed that the numbers say it all, with his line's agency commissions increasing from $530 million in 2009 to $630 million in 2010. He also said that cruise selling is a “very personal business” with personal contact between agent and customer as the key to sales success.
American Cruise Lines’ Robertson echoed that sentiment, noting that agents have a personal connection with the customer that the cruise line will never have. Jan Swartz, executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer service, Princess Cruises and Cunard Line, also said the lines are giving the agency community better pricing than what consumers get by booking directly with the line, and agents also receive amenities to help close the sale.
In short, the cruise executives continued to stress the importance of the travel agent in selling cruises.
“You still hold the cards," Sasso told the agents in attendance. “You need to work harder in closing sales” and, if so, he said that agents will never be left out of the mix: “We’re still the best friend you’ve ever had [in the travel industry]."